Obama Takes on Inequality

Because the level of inequality in the United States is so extreme, because the condition of the “middle class” is deteriorating, and because there is so much need in the midst of plenty, increasing numbers of Americans are becoming troubled.

Inequality has been on the rise since the mid-1970s though, for a long time, few seemed to notice or care.  Evidently, we have now reached a tipping-point.

Hardly anyone blames the root cause, capitalism itself.  The idea that neoliberal globalization, the dominant factor in the current phase of capitalist development, is at fault is more widely appreciated.

But the opposition is still not pervasive or intense enough to turn back the bipartisan, neoliberal consensus that has afflicted our politics since the declining years of the Carter administration.

In short, inequality’s consequences are bemoaned; its causes, not so much.  But those consequences increasingly rankle.

With his administration’s antennae tuned to public opinion, and with both Democrats and Republicans getting the message, it was inevitable that Barack Obama would eventually jump on the anti-inequality bandwagon.

This is how it worked with “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and how it is now working with gay marriage.  Obama follows Benjamin Disraeli’s dictum: “I must follow the people,” Disraeli said, “am I not their leader?”

And so, in his State of the Union address, Obama called for a raise in the federal minimum wage, and announced that, by executive order, he would require government contractors to pay at least $10.10 — up from $7.25 — an hour.

If he stays true to form, there may be some legislative measures forthcoming in the next few months that he will do nothing to promote.  But unless Occupy Wall Street or something like it returns, that should be all we hear about inequality from the White House from now on.

Obama boosters are an abject lot, and now that we are five years into his tenure, their expectations are few.  His words Tuesday night will therefore probably satisfy their desire that he do something.  Obama has spoken; now there are only Republicans to blame.

But the boosters have been falling away since Day One, and Obama’s critics are becoming more acute.  It used to be mainly right-wing loonies with a racist tinge who had it in for Obama; their complaints were ludicrous.  By now, though, the scales have fallen from the eyes of many liberals and progressives; their complaints are spot on.

After his first few months in office, some Obama watchers pointed out how, whenever he does propose something out of the ordinary, he speaks grandiosely (though vaguely) and then lets events take their lobbyist-dictated, “bipartisan” course.

This was how we ended up with the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s “signature” legislative triumph.  It was a gift to the beneficiaries of our costly and inefficient system of health care provision, the insurance and pharmaceutical industries especially, confected by lobbyists and their bought and paid for legislators.

Of course, it also made health insurance available to some, though far from all, previously uninsured people.  This, his defenders assure us, vindicates Obama’s governing (or non-governing) style.

His latest State of the Union address deviated from the norm a tad: there was nothing grandiose, vague or otherwise, about what he called for.  Apparently, we are now living through Obama’s minimalist period.

However, there is another facet of Obama’s modus operandi that has been less widely noticed, but that was maximally in evidence Tuesday night.

Perhaps he learned it from the Israelis, observing how they have successfully blocked the establishment of a Palestinian state ever since they officially endorsed the concept in 1993.

The idea is to feign fidelity to the goal, repeatedly and in all apparent sincerity, while doing everything possible to assure that it will never come to pass.

Creating facts on the ground is key.  In occupied Palestine, this means establishing settlements on Palestinian land that no Israeli government would dare remove, even if it wanted to.

In Obama’s case, it means continuing state support for financial machinations from which only the super-rich benefit, and conferring de facto immunity from prosecution upon banksters and others whose greed leads them to exceed even what is technically legal under our current, greed-driven system.

It isn’t only Obama’s fault.  The entire political class is to blame – for rendering fair taxation policies unfeasible, and assuring that meaningful wealth confiscation and redistribution is out of the question.   So too are their media flacks.

Native Americans had a name for it, they called it speaking with a “forked tongue,” and they encountered it repeatedly in their dealings with Washington. The focus on inequality is novel, but the phenomenon is as old as Manifest Destiny itself.  In Obama, the spirit of the Great White Fathers lives on.

It is telling that when he berates inequality, Obama’s complaint has more to do with its economic consequences than its injustice.  And, even then, his indictment leaves the class-biases of his neoliberal economic commitments untouched.

The problem our political leaders acknowledge is that with unemployment and underemployment rampant and with real wages stagnant or in decline, not enough people have enough cash to keep the demand for goods and services high.

Up to a certain point, the few who own almost everything can benefit from this situation by outsourcing jobs and otherwise cutting labor costs.  They can then keep consumers happy enough to acquiesce by assuring ample supplies of cheap goods made abroad.

But this cannot go on forever.  In time, with the “middle class” in decline and poverty on the rise, even “malefactors of great wealth,” as we should take to calling them again, will have trouble enriching themselves further.

This is how matters currently stand.  Despite the best efforts of Wal-Mart and other low wage schlock emporia, the military, the Treasury and the Federal Reserve, there is just not enough money in consumers’ hands to sustain even obscenely unbalanced growth.

For the one percent to continue accumulating riches at the levels to which they have become accustomed, Third World labor, military spending, and paper wealth, unrelated to the real economy, are not enough; domestic consumer markets need a boost.

On the right – or righter – side of the political spectrum, the inclination is to blame the victim; to trot out the old “culture of poverty” arguments again.

However this time around, even many Republicans understand, as best they can, that the ambient political economy helps shape and sustain the cultural disabilities they decry.

Whether they realize it or not, they therefore implant themselves on the terrain Obama staked out in his State of the Union message.   It had to happen someday; Democrats have been implanting themselves on Republican terrain for decades.

Therefore the question for everyone – except perhaps Ayn Rand followers and other doctrinaire libertarians – is what should the government do?

This is not quite the same as asking what will the government do?  We know the answer to that: with Obama in charge, it won’t do much of anything – once the words are spoken and the gestures made.

In the past, in many instances, Obama’s words and gestures, if followed up with action, might indeed have led to substantive changes.  Some of them might even have been changes for the better.

This time around, however, his words and gestures are void of substance.  Therefore, when he goes on to do not much of anything by way of follow up, little, if anything, will be lost.

Tuesday night’s histrionics notwithstanding, this is plain from even a cursory reflection on what equality involves — conceptually and historically.

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The religious and philosophical traditions that shaped the thinking of the first proponents of equality some four centuries ago upheld the idea that persons are equal – in ways that matter theologically or philosophically.   But these traditions were not taken to imply that political, social or economic institutions should treat persons equally.

For example, the medieval Church held that lords and serfs harbor souls that God loves equally.  But no one took this to imply anything about equal treatment for lords and serfs.

Indeed, the predominant view was that it would be “unnatural” and therefore wrong or contrary to God’s will were members of different social classes treated the same way.

This conviction began to weaken as traditional social solidarities gave way to instrumental social relations based on market mechanisms, and as popular aspirations came to be articulated in terms of fundamental “rights.”

By the time of the French and American Revolutions, the idea that persons living in the same political communities are all equal as citizens – in other words, that basic legal and political rights should be distributed equally – was widely endorsed in enlightened circles on both sides of the Atlantic.  In due course, the whole world followed suit.

But what was proclaimed in theory was – and still is – often denied in practice.

In the United States early on, only free white men had full legal rights; indeed, many Americans were slaves.  And it took almost two centuries for all citizens – regardless of wealth, gender or race – to gain full voting rights.

Remarkably, even that achievement is now under attack as Republicans, seeking electoral advantage, invoke the possibility of electoral fraud as a pretext for suppressing voter turnout in communities, mostly poor or of color, where Democrats have an advantage.

In the United States today, the unequal distribution of political rights is pervasive and systemic.  Indeed, there has probably has never been a time when there has been less equality of political influence even for those who are able to vote without impediment.  This is because unequal wealth has spilled over into unequal political rights to an unprecedented extent.

For this, the Supreme Court is partly to blame.  Over the past several decades, but especially in recent years, it has effectively recast political corruption – the buying and selling of political influence – as Constitutionally protected free speech.

“Equal justice under law” is inscribed on the Supreme Court building, but in the United States today, that is more an illusion than a reality.

Unequal justice is one of the many ways that racism survives in our basic institutional arrangements.   It also plays a role in government efforts to preserve the status quo at home and abroad.

The Obama-Holder Justice Department has been especially intent on protecting Bush-Obama era war criminals, and banksters who have robbed the American people egregiously.

It is emblematic of the situation Obama superintends that his chief spy-master, James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, has gotten off scot-free after lying to Congress, and that he prances about denouncing Edward Snowden for shining light on the Bush-Obama war on privacy, due process and freedom of expression.  To that end, this Obama-supported defender of the American way has even gone so far as to threaten journalists who utilize the information Snowden has provided.

The situation is more or less the same everywhere.  No significant strain of public opinion favors unequal legal and political rights.  Political equality is universally endorsed.  But, in the real world of politics, it is seldom perfectly realized or even approximated; sometimes, it is deliberately denied.

The great revolutions of the eighteenth century that sealed feudalism’s demise established a distinct, but related, conception of equality: equality of opportunity.

Like the idea of political equality, notions of equal opportunity are honored more in the theory than the observance.   The difference is that in this case there is not just hypocrisy and denial, but also contestation over what the idea means.

For some, equal opportunity is achieved when legal or customary impediments are removed so that in principle everyone competes for scarce but desired benefits on equal terms.  Equal opportunity in this sense — the idea that careers be open to talents, as they said in revolutionary France, — is therefore tantamount to political equality.  It collapses differences inherent in class societies into the universality of citizens’ rights.

For others, there is equal opportunity only when state or societal institutions correct for all the factors that impede individuals’ competitive prospects – in other words, when the playing field is level.

Needless to say, it would be difficult, if not impossible, at the societal level, to assure that all individuals compete on equal terms.  But the practical problems become tractable when the idea is only to correct for disadvantages that individuals face as members of systematically disadvantaged groups.

Women comprise such a group, as do racial, ethnic and religious minorities, along with other involuntary collections of individuals that suffer from discrimination.

Then, for those who would equalize opportunities in this sense, the idea is to compensate for disadvantages through “affirmative actions” that accord priorities in competitions to individuals from disadvantaged groups.

To do this thoroughly, it would be necessary to start at birth if not before.  But that would conflict with the idea that, whenever possible, children should be reared in families; something no one seriously proposes.   Affirmative interventions therefore always come too late.

Political equality is different; that ideal can be realized perfectly without violating any core values.  Equality of opportunity can only be approximated with varying degrees of success.  Realizing that ideal perfectly is generally beyond the means societies can employ.

However directing public expenditures in ways that benefit the poor more than the rich, along with vigorous affirmative action programs, can significantly ameliorate situations in which substantive, not just formal, opportunities are unequally distributed.

In principle, though, there could be little, if any, need for amelioration.  All that is required for that would be an equal, or nearly equal, distribution of income and wealth.

Were there substantially more wealth and income equality than there currently is, and were basic legal and political rights also distributed equally and to the greatest possible extent, there would be no need to equalize opportunities.  Equal opportunity would follow automatically.

In philosophical circles, a great deal of attention has been paid in recent decades to ascertaining precisely what economic equality involves, especially in situations where production, trade, and luck are taken into account.

The question is more complicated than might at first appear.  But, for practical policy purposes, whatever the precise goal is thought to be, the best – indeed, often the only feasible – way to approximate it is by distributing income and wealth as equally as possible.

Is that what Obama has in mind?  Not by a long shot.  The measures broached in his State of the Union message fall preposterously short of anything even remotely sufficient for advancing equality in this sense – or indeed in any other.

Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, roughly what it was in 1968 (taking inflation into account), and continuing unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed, as any minimally decent society would, can help a little to slow down rising inequality.  But these proposals hardly begin to address egalitarian concerns.

Obama could have done better, much better, just by resuming policies that were widely accepted – indeed, taken for granted – by both Republicans and Democrats just a few years ago.

He might, for example, have declared that he would enforce existing laws that enable union organizing and that he would work for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, as he promised repeatedly when he was running for office.

If there is a clear lesson for egalitarians from the mass of evidence that has been accumulating for at least the past century and a half, it is that, in capitalist societies, nothing is more efficacious and beneficial than a strong, independent labor movement.

That is hardly news – except perhaps in national Democratic Party circles and in the White House.

Or instead of asking for fast track authority to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, a trade measure certain to have more devastating consequences for working people even than the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, he could have forborn from making the already bad situation confected during the Clinton years worse.

For sheer disingenuousness, Obama railing against increasing inequality while advancing neoliberal trade policies rivals Binyamin Netanyahu’s declarations of support for a Palestinian state while establishing new Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories.

Then there is education policy.  In the Bush-Obama era, the talk is about “the American dream,” not about, as Eugene Debs put it, rising with your class, not rising out of it.


But Bush’s and Obama’s education policies are only incidentally about bringing a few children from poor families into the so-called middle class.  They are about training the workers capitalist firms need; a goal that can be, and typically is, in tension with even with such pale, old-fashioned egalitarian ideas as using schools to create democratic citizens.

Today’s leaders know how to do that, or ought to know, because it is what their predecessors did.  They ought to know too that teaching to tests and introducing other corporate-friendly measures of “performance” is unhelpful at best, and that underfunding public education, and attacking educators and their unions, is not the way to proceed.

This used to be widely understood.  But in the Age of Obama, obvious, decent, and tried and true methods that even hint at the prospect of raising revenues by raising taxes, especially taxes on the rich, only invite derision.   They also displease the paymasters of the Democratic and Republican Parties.

Because our President knows this well, the level of caution he displayed in his State of the Union address was stupefying.   He threw out only one sop: an old proposal for pre-school programs for four-year olds.

Will he do anything about even that?  Don’t hold your breath.  In all likelihood, we have already seen all the action there will be.

And then there is poverty.  Forget about LBJ’s War against it five decades ago; Obama didn’t even mention the problem Tuesday night.  Going back to Great Society minimum wage levels is about as far as he is willing to go.

Who knows – or cares – what Obama really wants; the one-percent is calling the shots.  How could they not?  They own most of what there is to own, the political class most of all.

To their credit, Republicans just are what they are: useful idiots of the super-rich.  Guile and dissimulation are beyond their reach.  With Democrats, there is more of a gap between appearance and reality.

With Obama, the gap was once exceptionally wide.  Those days are long gone.  But the man is nothing if not clever, and Netanyahu has taught him well.  And so, as he inveighs against inequality, he goes on establishing facts on the ground.

The super-rich therefore need not worry that, under Obama’s leadership, less inequality is coming.  Insofar as the President has anything to do with it, there will be more, not less, for them.

Obama’s forked tongue has spoken, taking inequality on.  But only the ninety-nine percent need worry.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).